Category Archives: Travel

Day 13 – Douzy to Givet – 80 miles

Encouraged by finding a new way north I left the campsite and went to find the Meuse river. I didn’t find a path until I got to Sedan. Being Sunday I wondered if that would increase or decrease the folk I found using the path: I knew it would make finding food more tricky.

Some cyclists to follow and keep their pace

It was nice to stay in the same gear for a period of time and look around as I kept up a decent pace (12.7mph). There was quite a selection of wildlife beside the river (including a Yorkshireman).

A portrait of an artist beneath a bridge
You’re kidding?
They were very tame and came up to the fence
They often left large ‘presents’ on the path to steer around

The weather was kind and the going easy. I saw a variety of people on bikes: elderly couples, families with trailers pulling their smallest family member, sleek lycra warriors on top of the range road bikes and a lot of electric bikes.

Purpose built infrastructure. It was common to have to switch to the other bank.
The river remained consistent, to me, at an altitude of 140m but it must have fallen due to regular locks

I saw few boats on the water, maybe a few cabin cruisers but like most European waterways they are now given over to tourism with few barges. The sad reality is that the consumption of fossil fuels by barges and the slow speed of transportation has left this solution obsolete as cost effective. I think the only chance it has of being competitive is the movement of aggregates or other exceptionally bulky material.

By the middle of the day I was famished but after drawing a blank in most places I found some sustenance in Bogny-sur-Meuse. It was now very hot and I managed to find a corner of a table out of the sun!

Just along from here I heard another crack. Another spoke broke on the back wheel. From never having had this problem before to now have two in short succession was troubling. Fortunately the wheel didn’t bow as badly this time and would roll. As I’m inspecting my problem a man above me worked out what had befallen me and wanted to help.

He was above me because he was sat in his garden looking out onto the river. He went to fetch some pliers to cut off the flapping broken spoke. After doing the task he was joined by another neighbour who started chatting about whatever. They fell into a conversation and so without any profuse thanks or swapping home addresses I just threw my leg over the top tube and pedalled off. This type of no fuss (or interest) about the French is an admirable quality.

I took out one of the rear brake blocks to aid the rotation. I now just hoped it could see me until the next bike shop. As always there were campsites dotted along the length of the river and I had one in mind near Givet, on the Belgian border. After 80 miles this small site, that appeared to be like someone’s front garden, came into view. It’d do at €7.50 for the night. I cleaned up and then cycled a mile into the centre of Givet for some lamb shoulder and couscous.

The route was windy and despite the 80 miles ridden I hadn’t gone that far north. Despite that situation then if you’re thinking about cycling in Europe for the first time and heading from Belgium or Holland to France this route will take a lot of beating.

Day 12 – Bar-le-Duc to Douzy – 79 miles

It seemed an idyllic day for being lazy in an interesting town but the road beckoned and I turned left out of the campsite and started to climb on the ‘Voie Sacrée’. Verdun, at the other end of this road, is etched into the French psyche as a place where in WW1 the efforts and soul of the nation were poured to fight the Germans as they advanced south west. The price in terms of lives was immense as both armies fought over a small front and in one or another way shelled the terrain to be as desolate and crater like as a lunar landscape. It looks that way even today. The official estimate is that both armies lost 300,000 dead during this two year conflict. This road was the route over which the French despatched resources toward the front. I thought about the young inexperienced soldiers going toward Verdun anxious about the war ahead and the tired, mutilated or dead who were coming back in the same trucks. In reality a desperate ribbon through which to pour life.

Road markers

In lovely sunshine I got to Verdun for lunch. I have been here before a couple of times before and visited the main battlefields including a superb museum. The Meuse river flows through the centre of this now tourist town. After a bite I continued along the Meuse. The river formed a natural front between the WW1 armies including the Americans who latterly helped the French hold the Germans and their allies.

A day like this can be a little dull. The towns are spread far apart and whilst the open, mainly arable countryside is attractive then it does start to become less engrossing during a seven hour bike ride.

As usual I was listening to music or a podcast. I had made my mind up to get home now. I was strong but tired but feared the ride back through Belgium. One of my later discoveries in life is that the land of Hercules Poirot is not flat: in fact it’s bloody hilly. I was not looking forward to severe climbing again.

My routine was to get a hot lunch and then stop at a boulangerie or supermarket to get a baguette, something to spread on it and a tomato. When I visit these stores I’m still tickled by the fact that the French break up the multipacks.

Monuments continued to be placed along the road.

This one is for the Austro-Hungarian troops supporting the Germans
This one from WW2

I started to close in on Douzy, a town close to a larger town called Sedan. It had been a long day and by the end of this day I would have clocked up a total of 736 miles without a day off. There was a campsite that looked very much like a resort park. It was beside a lake and lots of teenagers were leaping into it and having a noisy yet terrific time. I went into Reception and thought I’d be a novelty as a cyclist. Not so. After my usual willing butchery of French the millennial behind the counter said “we can speak English if you like?” It transpired that there was a popular cycling route beside the Meuse and many cycle tourers stayed here overnight. On this route you followed the river where there was a path but otherwise you ambled along on smaller roads near it. I had taken the main road, which was quite reasonable apart from one memorably long steep climb out of Moulins-Saint-Hubert. My route did have the benefit of occasional sights such as this mural in Mouzon.

So I was camping with other cyclists and there were some great facilities including a marquee and benches and a charging point for devices.

Board with sockets against the windows

I saw some Dutch cyclists and interrupted their dinner! Did they have any suggestions on how to get to Rotterdam with least climbing? A map/book was produced that simply advised following the Meuse river. In our discussion they kept saying it went to Maastricht. Who knew the Maas and the Meuse were the same river? Not me! This did have a profound affect on my progress to the ferry. The river cut straight through the Ardennes, albeit very windy, but flat.

So the campsite was a great experience but as we all settled down after 10pm there continued to be the sound of a diesel engine grumbling along, in the distance, under great strain. Why was it working so late on a Saturday night? My weariness and ear plugs won over. The next morning I noted there was a nearby chipboard plant (Unilin). I calculated that a shovel loader was moving logs into the hogger to make the chips (for the chipboard) in this 24/7 continuously running plant.

Day 11 – Chaumont to Bar-le-Duc – 63 miles

It did rain over night and I awoke to find a family of Brits had arrived. They were from Lincoln and were heading south in their camper van without much of a plan. They had come via Calais and had the demanding job of entertaining two small children for the duration.My plan was to continue north. The weather was bleak as I set off but there was no rain as I continued on a major highway.

A tell tale clue it rained overnight

There’s something dispiriting about camping or riding in the damp. Also I was missing that rest day that enabled some sorting out of kit as well as putting your feet up. Certainly this wasn’t a place to stay.

The bollard was for the workmen strimming the verge. Nice to ride slowly up a hill without cars close by. Inevitably the workmen encouraged me up the hill

Eventually the sun started to come out and normal service was resumed weather-wise. This meant a change in tops and splashing on Factor 50. I took the opportunity to drag out a towel and a pair of shorts to hopefully dry them out. Sadly this also applied to the road that still went up and down!

I found a bench to get out a map to study it

I look at the map to assess the type of road, the distances between towns and to confirm I’m heading in the right direction. I’m never certain how far I’ll get but ordinarily the constraint of where the campsite is determines the destination.

Some fellow road users

I was following a road to Saint-Dizier but by this time had decided that Bar-le-Duc was my overnight stopping place. I try and eat every hour. Sometimes it can be a treat (see the photo). This is my favourite French confectionary.

Something fishy going on here

I left the main road to run parallel on a B road. Some of the properties are delightful.It’s the coordinated paint scheme that elevates it. Also what French colours.

I had stayed in Bar-le-Duc before and whilst liking the camp site I was kept awake then by a couple of inconsiderate French lads who decided to have a Saturday night all nighter with music (here’s my 2018 blog). I parked my tent on a different part of the site.

This time there were no similar issues. I hadn’t cycled through the town last time and this time I discovered a sunny and busy high street with cafes and bars. A little too far to pop into from the site but worth noting for another visit. This is my plot below. On arrival the Reception was closed. I asked a Dutch couple what the arrangement was? They said the owner was cleaning the shower block. I found her and she said ‘put up your tent’ and see me later when I open up Reception. I did and the €6.20 was reasonable I thought.

However, it’s here that that Leeds United won promotion. Huddersfield Town beat West Bromwich Albion and ensured that we were up! I had a small bottle of wine to go with my baguette and fromage and I sat there texting excitedly and being delighted by the messages I received from old friends who knew my delight. A bit of an anti-climax really and I felt I should have been touring York, in the Morgan trailing my scarf with ‘Marching On Together’ blaring at Volume 11. The video was something I put onto Facebook as the deed was being done by our Yorkshire neighbours.

Laundry and animal abuse…

Day 10 – Dijon to Chaumont – 68 miles

The original plan pre Coronavirus had been for Anna and myself to spend a week around Carcassonne and then she’d fly home and I’d cycle back. For various reasons Anna decided not to come and so in effect I arrived in Carcassonne and started cycling back. I point this out because a lot of the route, latterly, is known to me and hence the ‘passing through’ commentary. For example I well remember visiting Beaune with my brother in law, Bill, and his (and my pal), Peter. It was a memorable visit to Burgundy in 2006 with two blokes who knew and liked their wine and how to have a jolly time. Likewise Dijon was on my first long solo bike ride in 2011. It was baking and I stayed in a hotel to escape the heat: no such problems this time!

Inside the tent. ‘Intimate’ is the word you’re searching for.

This time as I started the process of packing up my wet tent I fell into a conversation with a cycling Swiss lady who’d camped just along from me. She had a bivouac tent but pulled a small trailer. This trailer solution usually indicated you’re hauling a lot of things. She was, a dog. She also had loads of luggage hung from her bike and the pouch was caged in a box on the trailer. She was a similar age to me – young (cough). She was pedalling from Berne to Normandy to see her mother. However she was using an electric bike, clever girl (oops, sorry Katrina (FED), ‘woman’). It looked a very expensive bike and she had a range of 100 kilometres on one of the batteries.

Despite all this chatting I washed some kit. It would have to be packed wet. I hoped the weather would pick up or I’d find a tumble dryer.

The destination today was Chaumont. The weather was damp and grey. The terrain was slow rolling, that is you’d have a long swoop down 30 metres over a length of several hundred metres before the road rose again. You couldn’t get sufficient speed up to climb the coming hill and ended up twiddling the granny gears to breast the peak before it all started again.

Angry sky over farm fields

Around lunchtime I pulled into a small town at the bottom of one of these rolling hills and found a ‘plat du jour’.

Yes they do quinoa in France

Inside was Nicholas. He was a Dutch psychologist who, after introductions, started a gentle investigation of the specimen in front of him. His story was more interesting. Thirty five years old and heading south with no plan. He had a business and team back in Utrecht but liked to wander and had some interesting stories about Iran, South America, Europe and, nearer, to home – Cornwall. I urged him to write them up. He had great insights.

In some ways he seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders or maybe he was a serious guy. I doubt I helped. I asked if I may take his picture for my blog and with a grumpy face he accepted. By way of reciprocity he invited me to take another photograph of him but with his 35mm film camera. The camera weighed a lot, a troubling issue for any touring cyclist! He expected me to know how to focus it (as I was older than the camera). I struggled peering through the viewfinder with him remaining out of focus. After a few minutes I worked out the problem: I wasn’t wearing my spectacles and so it wouldn’t be in focus would it! This was hilarious and I caught a photo of him laughing! We said goodbye.

Yes, that is a guitar. I once did tour with someone who carried a ukelele but this is a commitment
Nicholas

Heading north I found Langres was a walled city and I caught this one image of a bus trying to escape with difficulty.

The road was a major highway and the traffic was fast and regular. There was nothing to slow it down. With towns far apart then drivers always pick up their speed.

Chaumont eventually arrived and I found a laundromat. Another ‘Angel’ came to my help and I was helped on how to programme the tumble dryer. With dry clothes I was happy and my morale was restored.

The centre of Chaumont looked promising with a number of bars and restaurants. I have to say the French have a fatal addiction to pizza. Anywhere and in every size of town it seems they love their cheesy treats. It was no different here. Unfortunately after pitching my tent the bike ride back into town would have necessitated a murderous climb. I could live without a pizza.

The campsite was a municipal one. Basic, cheap and well placed. The woman on Reception managed to wind me up. The site had 60 pitches but with only four occupied. Instead of saying “pitch where you like” she allocated a pitch. I ended up some way from the shower block. When I remonstrated she feigned not to speak English and suggested my favoured pitch was too big for a little tent. True but as no one was there then why worry?

Quiz question. Which is the hot tap/faucet?

After the football euphoria of Leeds United beating Swansea then tonight was the ‘banana skin’ game, at home, against the bottom of the table team, Barnsley. Anna sent a text informing me that we were leading 1-0. I hadn’t realised they’d kicked off! Tim in York added ‘colour’ to the information I got from Twitter and with a lot of luck we held on. This virtually confirmed our promotion. I had no booze and no one to celebrate this with and it was still drizzling. Time for bed.

Day 9 – Montceau-les-Mines to Dijon – 69 miles

A familiar but unwelcome sound greeted me as I came to from my slumbers: rain hitting the window. It stood to reason that I’d hit rain eventually but it was a stark contrast to 44°C only days ago.

So gathering my rain gear I ventured out and went first to Le Clerc the large supermarket. I enquired of one employee “ou sont les cartes?” The young woman adopted the face someone would if you’d asked them to add 16.7431 to 324. 219567. Then all of a sudden the ‘darkness’ lifted, she smiled and she said “carrtzzz”? The mystery word had been deciphered and with this correct pronunciation she covered me in a light film of phlegm. This correction came along with a barrage of instructions that I vaguely interpreted to mean I should cross the road to another shop. Wiping my spectacles of this spittle I ventured across the road for the maps. Said map and new adaptor and cabled were acquired.

Eventually I was on my way and proceeding along a canal path. Funnily enough after not having seen any cycle tourers I quickly saw other burdened cyclists rolling toward me. Maybe this is the way normal people cycle tour?

I must mention that in addition to WW1 monuments to the fallen there are many WW2 monuments to fallen Resistance fighters.

So in overcast and drizzly weather I spent the morning on the canal. I soon saw the other tourers: grizzly bearded old men pulling trailers, energetic younger blokes racing behind each other, couples with the man usually carrying the bulk of their possessions etc. Clearly my use of the road and predilection for mountains was an exception amongst the breed.

I enjoyed the easy ride at pace and soon racked up 30 miles. At Chagny the canals split and I stopped for lunch and decided to leave the waterways behind and head to Beaune by road. Here is more ‘plat du jour’ for your scrutiny.

Duck (always with bread)

The drizzle and greyness gave way to torrential rain as I ate. The following picture was taken from under the canopy at the restaurant. I eventually had to venture out and fortunately it soon stopped as I entered the wines of Burgundy.

Il pleut…
Vines as far as the eye could see

I passed through the capital of the region, Beaune, and everything seemed classy and manicured.

I’d decided to stay at a campsite in Dijon. Despite the size of the town there was little choice and as I was running late I got my head down. As I’m pedalling through a flat and traffic free area of farm land I heard a crack. I’d broken a spoke.

For the technically minded then… I carry spare spokes but I have never had a broken spoke, on all my trips, before. I was surprised and worried. The rear wheel was now bowed and would only rotate by rubbing the mudguard and frame. I also removed a break block but still it impeded rotation. I was 3 miles from the above famous town and I limped there terribly slowly. I could have been in a much worse location. I neither carried a socket to remove the rear cassette or spanner to get leverage and I didn’t carry a spoke tightener. I’ll have to think through future tools. With difficulty I found a bike shop and for €8 a mechanic replaced the spoke. He ‘trued’ the wheel as best he could but it wasn’t as accurate as I’d have liked.

Along a busy road I found a supermarket for some bits for dinner and then closed in on the campsite in the outskirts of Dijon. At this point the full contents of the Heavens tipped onto me. Oh, I have seldom been wetter. I was also chilled by the deluge.

‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands’

I got to the campsite and on very wet ground put up the tent. Sadly a number of pieces of clothing in the panniers were sodden: I hadn’t secured the top well enough. I couldn’t dry anything and included were some items I’d wear to keep warm. Anyway I ate my dinner in my tent and checked the weather forecast for the next day before going to sleep.

Day 8 – Vichy to Montceau-les-Mines -102 miles

So with 353 miles under my (reducing) belt I had breakfast, at the hotel, and was out into a very quiet Vichy. The reason for this comes later.

After the dilapidation of Thiers then the outskirts of Vichy were neat, tidy and cared for. I’m not enthusiastic about cycle paths but if this was to lead to Rotterdam then I might not complain. Rotterdam was to be my ultimate Continental destination. After badgering P&O (the ferry operator) on Twitter it appears that they will not be opening the Zeebrugge, Belgium route to tourists any time soon. I always suspected it didn’t make money as the ferry only ever seemed sparsely occupied on my many crossings. The pandemic has turned ‘bad’ into ‘disaster’ no doubt. As you can see below the suburbs were attractive and again spookily empty.

Before long I was away from the city and into the countryside. The brutal hills of the Massif Central were behind me but I was regularly climbing and accumulating impressive height gains (today was a bonkers 1,525m). You may think the following sign is a ‘red letter’ day. I think you’ll find most cycle tourers expect that ‘what goes down goes up’ and so it’s hard to enjoy this brief plummet. Even though I had been on the bike every day I think yesterday’s minimal riding had been restorative.

From terrible average speeds here I was nicely into double figures. Below is a canal path I cycled over. I would eventually have my time on them.

The eating plan is to have one hot meal a day and to eat whilst cycling as well. At night, on the campsite I’m always pressed for time and so maybe a whole baguette, a tomato and a large chunk of cheese might suffice (plus a cake if the boulangerie obliges). A French staple lunch time is ‘Plat Du Jour’. Many bars or restaurants do them. It’s reasonably priced, has little or no choice but is served quickly. The latter service is to accommodate the busy person who wants to be back behind his desk or shovel loader steering wheel. Here are three course and the bill I found at a restaurant:

Starter
Main course, some pork is beneath the sauce. All this comes with a basket of bread
Pear tart

The damage was reasonable, n’est pas?

Gone were the gorges or mountains but rolling hills. All were given over to cereal production. Now the day and lunch had made things idyllic and a good mileage was being achieved. However I identified Le Creusot as a place to stop over. I got there and there was no camping, a hostel or hotels that I could find. I was looking for smaller places. The reason for the latter lack of open hotels was because today was Bastille Day. It’s a bank holiday and a lot of things are shut. It is France’s National Day and it’s origins go back to storming this Paris fortress/prison in 1789 and was, in effect, the people rising up against the monarchy.

So using my Apps I’m all over town trying to find a roof over my head and time is elapsing. I ring Anna and ask her to book an Ibis hotel a further 14 miles south. This meant going backwards, not a happy activity but needs must.

A giant steel press at a roundabout. Love it.

Just before getting to the hotel I found some food. After this distance and being late I could have eaten a horse. Actually I have seen this meat on the menu. However, not at McDonalds.

Checking in to the Ibis was a trial. It had been paid for on line, by my bride, but they made me pay again. I had further meetings with other staff who spoke English, but I expect I’ll have to resolve something between Ibis, Amex and Booking.com when I get home.

Day 7 – Thiers to Vichy (27 miles) – Rest Day

I was happy to check out from Fawlty Towers and descend to Vichy. This would truly get me clear of the Massif Central (yippee). Before I left Thiers I saw one of many monuments, as seen all over France, to the fallen soldiers of WW1.

It’s still staggering to think despite the enormous human cost of this war to Western Europe (and the British Empire) that by 1939 another greater conflagration would take place. So breaking a golden rule of not cycling on a rest day I I pedalled into the spa town of Vichy and headed for Decathlon. The town is sat on the Allier river.

Allier river

I had time to kill prior to check in at my new hotel and did some shopping at this sports retailer. At the checkout there was an automated till and frankly I couldn’t follow the signage and abandoned that option. The lady behind me in the queue saw me moving away from this machine and said something in French I didn’t understand. I was happy to queue elsewhere and said. “Merci, je suis Anglais”. She then just said “Aww mayte, I can help you”. Who knew that Australians could speak languages other than English? Anyway she helped me complete the transaction and I told her of my being in Australia in March and where I’d been. When I mentioned Melbourne she was gripped with horror and referred to the current lockdown there. I let it pass but Australia has only had 116 reported deaths but France has had over 30,000. I know which is safer.

So another rest day job is washing (properly) my kit. I would have liked to have included the kit I was wearing but a night in the cells was too high a price to pay, not least because Anna had already paid for a room. However I couldn’t easily fathom out how you got soap powder from one machine and paid in another and what you paid with – card, notes, coins… At this point a helpful lady grabbed my notes and gave me back some coins. Err, well she didn’t as she’d worked out I was a dork and so she bought the soap powder, put it in the machine and then programmed the machine and started it. Merci beaucoup! She could have been Ann Widdicombe’s sister…

Laundrette Angel

This done and a sandwich consumed it was a time that I could check in. I loved the hotel although getting the bike into the lift was memorable.

So how did I get the bike in?

(In fact I liked the hotel so much I donated, on my departure, a USB adaptor and iPhone charging cable). Later I drifted around the centre of the town and it was very much a relaxed spa resort.

A jazz quintet playing on the stand

However, the town has a dark history. It was the seat of the collaborationist French regime during WW2. When Germany occupied France in 1940 the north was occupied but the south or ‘Vichy France’ was allowed to run itself under German instruction until 1944 albeit with diminishing authority. The seat of government was placed in Vichy, not least because it had sufficient space to host this ‘government’. I imagine the options were limited for the French given the German victory but this government collected more Jews than was strictly necessary to satisfy the Nazis (only 3% survived the death camps) and was otherwise ultra conservative: divorce wasn’t legal! It also controlled the French fleet, which probably explains why Churchill sank it. To add to its troubled past then amongst the several towns they’re twinned with it includes Dunfermline.

However that is history. Today it is an attractive place and I hope to visit again.

Day 6 – St-Flour to Thiers – 78 miles

Interestingly the weather was a lot cooler and I was quite chilly in the tent overnight. I’ve a lot of clothing solutions and if I know it’s coming then I can prepare. I didn’t (!) and kept waking up…doh.

There you go here’s a ‘bedroom scene’ with me first thing (without make up)

The start was an unremarkable 270m climb. I just know it’s coming now and so do my legs. Lord knows what I did wrong in a previous life to deserve these climbs.

Looking back down the hill
My climb even had it’s own ‘Col’ named after it.

However despite this I was chipper because this was the last day before a ‘rest day’. The Central Massif was ending and whilst it was up and down the brutality diminished. I didn’t start with any breakfast but found a boulangerie en route for croissants and a very tasty quiche lorraine. You can see some customers disregarding wearing masks or keeping the required 1.5 metres let alone there only being two allowed in the shop. I’d say in bigger towns there is more interest in the masks. In the countryside it seems very optional.

I even found myself poodling along in a delightful gorge for the river Alagnon.

After following the river I had to leave it to go north east to reach Thiers. The change in direction meant a little more climbing and certainly less settlements. As I ground up through one small village I noted that there was a large flat area with many trees giving it shade. Beneath the trees were maybe 60 people at three large tables having a Sunday lunch. I think wine may have flowed because as I cycled past I drew a great response of cheering and clapping. I gave them the ‘Royal’ wave back.

A very typical French back road with trees giving shade

I was otherwise some what on edge as Leeds United we’re away at Swansea City. I kept stopping every 10 minutes to check the score. At 80 minutes at 0-0 I lost a sufficiently good mobile signal to get updates. This coincided with my descent for 2 miles. As I’m in this delicious free fall I heard my phone go ‘plinky plinky plink plonk’. This is a WhatsApp message being received. I knew it must be Anna telling me Leeds had scored at the death. Coming to rest I had a sufficient signal to look at the App. Very thrilled!

So why Thiers? Well it looked a big town on the map and had some medieval buildings that maybe indicated it was an interesting day to spend a day off the bike at. The reality was a virtually abandoned hill side town with a thriving commercial life flourishing below. The hill side ‘centre ville’ must have been abandoned after the war and it really appeared quite derelict.

I expect that after WW2 people wanted better housing and the centre of time was antiquated. To add to this I imagine jobs migrated from the centre as well.

My hotel was expensive due to the lack of choice! Even more galling was that if I’d called in rather than book it on line I could have got my room at two thirds of the price.

The manager (and chef) was pleased to see me and ultimately hard to shake off! I was in need of a shower and he kept badgering me about all sorts in torrents of French. My retort of ‘la plume de ma tante‘ to everything he said confirmed, in his mind my complete mastery of French and so he rabbited on. The upshot was my agreement to dine in the hotel. In fact the wisest thing I did in Thiers. I went for a stroll had a quick beer and returned to a delightful treat:

Just a remarkable piece of beef.

I’m starting to think hotels now do stuff that’s not needed. A small provincial hotel has few staff and so who would answer, let alone, use the phone?

It was obvious that my ‘rest day’ in Thiers would be a waste. So tomorrow I’d pedal down the hill to Vichy.

Day 5 – Chirac to St-Flour – 48 miles

As I’m washing my bidons (behave) in the morning a bloke at the next basin strikes up a conversation. You can tell he’s French as he has a moustache and is a millennial. Which other nationality wants to look like their great grandfather? Butchering the French language with my failed O Level French I tell him of my journey whilst he expresses awe and respect. I would have liked to have pointed out that last night’s beauty sleep was delayed because of him jibbering onto to his mate until past eleven. But it’s not British.

The first stop was Marvejols.

Inexplicable

Quite a small but delightful spot very busy with a Saturday morning market. It still amazes me that the French would queue for various parts of small dead animals that you’d only contemplate consuming on ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’. So with a safer coffee and croissants consumed I left town and hoped the road would continue to be flat.

Your wish is my command…

Nope. For the next couple of hours I climbed upwards by over 500m. Despite not getting the French O Level then I had more success with Self Pity and after reaching the top I was ready for the A Level. This is not the way to start a day.

So with this tiring start the next attraction was finding Chély d’Apcher. This attractive, yet industrial town is twinned with a local town to where we live, Tadcaster. We live 9 miles away. Tadcaster has three breweries but is frankly mainly a selection of empty shops, bakers, charity shops and down at heel pubs. It’s caught between two bigger cities and it’s glory days are well past. Twinning as a popular activity came about after WW2 between French and German towns as they attempted to heal the divisions. The towns usually have something in common. I could see no similarities here.

Town square. Restaurants abound on the perimeter
Bigger pizzas than Tad as well. (I did leave a piece!)

So onwards the road ran alongside the A75 motorway.

However, one notable detour was deep into a valley where this magnificent construction straddled the gap.

The viaduct at Garabit
It seems the boy Eiffel occasionally got out of Paris

I left this valley needing crampons. Sadly I was truly shot. The mountains and miles before had rendered me totally depleted. I struggled into the nearby town of St-Flour and then staggered up another spiteful hill to a campsite nearby. (I’d climbed 1,222m today). I would always hope to ride further than this. After all the heat then today had been cooler mainly due to a constant headwind. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

The route in total

Day 4 – Millau to Chirac – 63 miles

The start was delightfully flat. My intention is head due North. As always it was warm and dry with a wonderful blue sky. Despite this great beginning I was jolted out my happy state by a brutal ascent to Compeyre. This was the usual uphill slog to a medieval village on top of a hill. Very quaint but not important so early in the day with so far to go.

I extracted myself from this small settlement and then consulted my ‘dangerously’ inaccurate Garmin for a direction north. It advised that this could be achieved with an immediate 1,000m climb. Funnily enough I thought differently and found myself cycling through the sensational Gorges du Tarn. The Tarn flows down this gorge enabling fabulous views and lots of canoeing. More to the point that whilst the road slowly rose it was virtually flat. The scenery was to die for.

The road had early 20th Century tunnels carved out.

This was but one of several

The gorge sides towered over the river.

If you look closely you can see a house at the bottom of the outcrop.

Along the route there were a few cyclists. One lady on an electric bike played leap frog with me as we stopped to take photos or in my case rummage around in my panniers for another energy bar. It goes without saying that I’ve not come across other cycle tourers on the trip so far.

View from a bridge

The gorge ends at Sainte-Enimie. I stopped and had a cycle tour staple – omelette and chips (no photos because my phone was on charge, what do you mean we all know what fecking omelette and chips looks like?) There are a couple of ways out of the gorge. They both include 400m climbs. Yes, I know how to enjoy myself! Replete with a full stomach I began a slow ascent. I stopped at 200m up to take a shot of the recycling depot. Well, I didn’t really I had to call ‘FYD’ to give an opinion on engine size for the new car and it’s here I stopped.

Depot to your left

The views were staggering.

A shot along the gorge

I did get over the lip of the gorge at 900m only to find that I had another 100m to climb before the deserved descent. (The day racked up another 1,057m). Next was finding a campsite for the night. Looking at my selection of Apps I chose a place in the small town of Chirac. Much to my relief the Boulangerie in the town was open. I made vital purchases.

These campsites should be bursting on weekends but they’re empty. It really is the stay at home Dutch who’ve left the gaps. The site owners usually give instructions on check in where you can pitch but this year they all say ‘wherever you like’.

Frankly a Labrador couldn‘t have eaten it faster

A real novelty was a picnic table. (I quickly appropriated that). Beside it was a barbecue. These are very unusual for anywhere but Australia. All this for €10.20 for the night.

Day 3 – Octon to Millau 50 miles

With the likely admonishment of my Leeds Beckett University nutrition experts I knew I had to get some breakfast. Going north from Octon was a good start as it was handily placed (and beautiful).

Leaving Octon

I was quickly in Lodève and found some breakfast (and a working plug socket).

I had lost one of the pads that keep your spectacle lens off your nose. I luckily found an optician next door to the breakfast stop and popped in. They replaced the missing one gratis. How kind.

These masks in these temperatures are impossible. No surprise that few French folk wear them.

The way north today was difficult! There is now a motorway (A75) that everyone hops on and it takes them through the mountains. The step down in terms of road after this four lane joy is onto tortuous B roads.

This whole range of mountains I’m negotiating over several days are called the Massif Central and it is a large area. Today I couldn’t take the motorway and so consulting Google Maps, my Michelin paper map and my Garmin Sat Nav I could see no way but to go climbing. In fact I was sent up 600 metres in 35 to 40°C and the gradient averaged between 5 and 8%. It took me around 3 hours to complete 15 miles. The only traffic I saw were road repair contractors! The roads were on occasion ropey but it appears no one uses them apart from stupid Englishmen!

Near the top

I pushed and pushed when the gradients went above 10%. Eventually I breasted the top and sped down to Le Caylar where I found shelter from the sun and a sandwich. In fact I sat in the cafe coming out of a heat haze. Overall for the day I climbed 909 metres; mainly in one ascent. The route now was to follow a service road beside the motorway. The destination was Millau. The town is famous for its bridge. This crosses the Tarn river and it’s tallest pillar is 343 metres, it’s the tallest bridge in the world. It was designed by a Frenchman and Norman Foster. It costs a lot of money as a toll bridge but I dare say they will be paying it off in decades time.

I had a wonderful descent into the town, by another road, and ended up in McDonalds at about 4.30pm. I thought this was a good evening meal solution. I have to say that their food is dreadful compared to years ago. I even had to chase an oik around the restaurant with my original fries… “froid, monsieur”.

There were a number of campsites; all next to each other. I chose a smaller less highly rated one. The more highly rated the more facilities and so more noise and excitable children.

Not a bad pitch
Too late for dinner. I wasn’t hungry then

After my chores I had a beer at the bar and kept tabs on Leeds United vs Stoke City by my sports app on my phone. 5-0, so pleased or relieved. Four gut churning games to go…

The Arrival in Carcassonne and then Day 2 – Carcassonne to Octon 89 miles

Apart from missing Junction 24 on the M1 and taking another 18 miles to turn round the drive to East Midlands Airport was straightforward. Anna was happy to take me and the drop off was quite simple at this small airport. The flight was barely occupied.

My kind of budget airline flight
Yes Janette, I was eventually told that the metal bit should go at the top and be bent around your beak

I’m not sure why so many people have dropped out but it made the flight painless and my bike box was waiting for me on the carousel as I cleared Passport Control. Not often I can say nice things about Ryanair… I asked one of the Carcassonne Airport staff if I might reassemble it inside the terminal rather than outside in the sweltering sun. No problem. Happily the bike went together well and I was off… to Decathlon.

This is a sports good store. I needed a gas canister for my camping. From here I wandered in circles around the town before finding my hotel down a back street. This was to be my first experience of how the French control the virus. At best it’s ‘lip service’. I was asked to sanitise my hands and follow the inevitable tape on the floor. After booking in I found myself up 3 flights of stairs in a reasonable room. The hotel only had four guests and so why I had several hearty hikes up and down I don’t know.

La Cité is a perfect fortification in Carcassonne. I’ve been about three times previously but it was nice to visit again. There were a few French around but the usual British voices were not to be heard. We’re still not travelling. The economic hit to these tourists spots must be gigantic. Anyway I had some pasta and then returned for a workout up the stairs and off to bed.

At 8.10am I was ready for the off. Pleasingly the start would be flat as I headed east. Traffic was light and the odd British, Belgium or Dutch number plates were a rare sightings. It was idyllic cycling beside the Canal du Midi. However I was only on the gravel footpath briefly before taking the road that ran beside it. This tremendous canal construction feat dates back to the 17th Century and was built to connect the Atlantic (Gironde River) with the Mediterranean. It’s 240 kilometres long.

Note the sensational blue sky

The bright blue skies were with me all day and the scenery was green and fertile. Vineyards were visible as far as the eye could see. The upshot of this flat run was 44 miles at 13.7 mph. That’s motoring in Touringville! I stopped for lunch in Capestang, a well known stop for the tourist hired canal boats that cruise the canal.

The Canal du Midi at Capestang
My cashier at the restaurant in Capestang!

It was starting to become very hot. In fact unbearably hot. I suddenly found my self climbing for a couple of hours as the temperature reached a bewildering 44°C. I felt the energy draining out of me and my legs. Sacre bleu!

To quote the mighty Whitesnake… “would I lie to you?”

I knew it’d be hot but this was stupid. My destination was all about a campsite I’d found near a lake. That sounds exquisite but frankly it was the only one I could spot as I planned my route.

I really started to die on the bike. It wasn’t helped by running low on water. At this temperature you drink every 5 minutes: you have to. I carry just under 3 litres and replenish when I can. However sometimes there is no water to be found. To add to my misery the road continued to climb! At 6.10pm I’m worrying about finding the campsite when my favourite youngest daughter rang to discuss car finance. I may have been a little pre-occupied and grumpy (quelle surprise). Fortunately I’d found some water. I’m not sure if it was drinkable but it sure tasted good.

Could have drunk it dry

Not without quite a bit of ‘going round in circles’ malarky I got to the campsite and parted with €19.00 for my pitch. In fact the owner wanted €19.02 but decided to make the magnanimous Gallic gesture and write off the balance (as I didn’t have the correct change). The site had solar power to heat the water and operate the bathroom lights but there were no electrical sockets.

Let’s hope my iPhone and Garmin battery last until I can find a socket! I rang the ‘FYD’ and completed the conversation on the intricacies of buying a car. Frankly she’s frighteningly sorted and I had little to add to her forensic analysis. I mean who turns up at a car showroom with a laptop to run through the figures with a salesman?

It’s not much but I call it home….
Local friends

The pitch was fine, the laundry was done and after some pasta I fell into a deep sleep.

Le Nomade Gris part en France

(The Grey Nomad goes to France)

Anna, when I was about to go to Australia in February, decided to book some flights to Carcassonne in the south of France for July. This was mainly to put something in the diary. She rightly noted that I was heading off for some sun (and pies) and that she deserved a holiday to look forward to. Carcassonne is a grand town with a citadel. This is an ancient 13th Century fortification in the centre of the town. Within this fortification there are cobbled streets, churches, bars, hotels etc. It is a special place. We’ve been on several occasions. When the pandemic struck we just left the flights in place not knowing when the borders would open again.

When the chance to fly arrived Anna felt leaving the UK so soon after my father-in-law being widowed wasn’t timely. (He’s doing remarkably well so far thankfully). So she’d pass up the holiday. I was happy to reschedule but there was no chance of a refund and to move the flights involved overcoming two obstacles. The first was being able to contact Ryanair and then paying considerable amendment charges. The latter were prohibitive when you note what we paid for the original flights pre-Covid-19 before the hikes. Anyway I decided to go and so the tour starts from Carcassonne airport next week. I am a man of lists and using this I have extracted all my necessary clothes and items for the trip.

Hob Nobs are vital

In a couple of weeks of pedaling or so I hope to arrive at the northern coastline. Exactly where depends on which ports have ferries sailing to Hull in England. At the moment only Rotterdam is open in The Netherlands but I’m hoping Zeebrugge in Belgium opens. This should be around 1,000 miles. As always I will be camping. However, there may be a few slates over my head if the weather turns very inclement.

My packing list – the ‘shower caps’ are for covering my saddle!

Just north of the city are some demanding mountains and so I’ve decided to initially head east and then north. This way I might limit the climbing necessary to make progress. There are no major cities on my route. However the regions I’ll cycle through will be green and ancient. I expect sunshine, fresh bread, delicious wine, unfussy campsites, indifferent locals and empty but steep roads. When I get further north I may follow the Meuse river into Belgium. I’ll worry about the detail in a few hundred miles time.

I shall be taking my iPad and writing about what I see. As always it’ll be grand if you join me.

Australia Bike Ride – Epilogue

Australia Blog 18

I thought I would split my post between a travelogue summary and then a cycling report. The travelogue summarises my thoughts about Australia and my cycling report includes some statistics and detail about the riding.

Travelogue

For whatever reason I never took to Melbourne; every one tells me it’s marvellous. Its an impressive city on the Yarra river and both the buildings and the water are tall or imposing. Like all cities it belongs to the under 30’s. They populate its streets and the food, shops and spaces belong to them. Melbourne is ethnically diverse. I well recollect Australians at the next table chatting away in Mandarin or Cantonese and I later heard that Melbourne is the largest Greek town after Athens. Diversity is the reality and future but it wasn’t the Australia I came to see. I wanted to see how it made a living, the life it’s non-urban communities lived, its landscapes and foibles.

I eventually put the city behind me and got into the Victoria countryside. Here were fields and animals. Everything was parched but this was the vista I expected. Small towns with a pub, a few shops, a fire truck building and a community centre were the norm and I ploughed north. After Wangaratta I deviated off the beaten track and ended up in Walla Walla. This was small town Australia. Hard working, no frills, a little bit down on its luck and miles from anywhere. I started to get the feel for the country and its people. Leaving Victoria was by the direct Hume Freeway a large artery of a dual carriageway heading north and then east toward Canberra and Sydney.

My luck ran out with the weather. When it rains it isn’t drizzle but hours of heavy falls. Riding beside this road with its spray and unnerving drafts from 34 wheel trucks made me climb off and catch a bus from Gundagai to Sydney. I hate to do this but I saw no point in suffering for the sake of it. Sydney was magnificent. Lots of history, fine architecture, a staggering harbour and sunshine. From here the ride north, in New South Wales, was hard but early morning games of school boy cricket and joggers or recreational cyclists on outside seating drinking coffee made me think there might be something to this life. Continue reading Australia Bike Ride – Epilogue

Australia Bike Ride – Kin Kin to Maryborough – 77 miles & Tour’s Finish

Australia Bike Ride 17

After failing to eat properly the night before I was delighted to discover this seemingly ramshackle general store in Kin Kin was a top cafe.

When I turned up last night it seemed improbable that they could russle up this omelette:

This was a sight for sore eyes. I asked inside about my nocturnal American friend. Yes he was known. His name’s Jim Wonder. He lives about 4 miles out of town and has been caught stealing showers and water before. They knew of his conspiracy theories and pre-occupation with artefacts. I feel I may have ‘grassed him up’ after discussing his ablutions last night but he needs to stop creeping around like that.

Fortified I headed north. Within a few miles I spent 10 minutes pushing the bike up an 18% gradient. Whether a help or a worry my Garmin Sat Nav does provide guidance that these enormous climbs are coming:

Continue reading Australia Bike Ride – Kin Kin to Maryborough – 77 miles & Tour’s Finish